By Mike Lillis - 10/01/10 05:38 PM EDT
Top administration officials on Friday apologized for a 64-year-old government program that used Guatemalans as guinea pigs for STD treatments.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius issued a joint statement saying the research, conducted between 1946 and 1948, "was clearly unethical."
"The conduct exhibited during the study does not represent the values of the United States or our commitment to human dignity and great respect for the people of Guatemala. The study is a sad reminder that adequate human subject safeguards did not exist a half-century ago."
As part of the decades-old study, researchers infected Guatemalans with syphilis in order to learn whether penicillin — not fully understood at the time — could prevent the infection, as well as treating it. The 696 subjects were plucked from a Guatemalan prison, an army barracks and a mental hospital, according to Susan M. Reverby, a gender studies professor at Wellesley College.
"Permissions were gained from the authorities but not individuals," Reverby notes.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the upper chamber's only member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, was quick to applaud Friday's apology, saying the program ranks among America's "deeply darkest moments."
"[N]o innocent fellow human should be treated as a lab rat, no matter your nationality," Menendez said in a statement. "The administration is demonstrating a great respect for human equality and historical accuracy by refusing to simply sweep this horrific revelation into the dust bin of history.
"The only way to move beyond history’s tragedies is to deal with them honestly, learn from them and make certain they are never repeated," he added.